If you want to be a poet, you must do two things above all others.
First you must stop “wanting” to be a poet. Wanting is never satisfied; it empties you and keeps you hungry. It demands your attention to the point of obsession and gives nothing back but more wanting. Every time you feed your wanting, you are taking food away from your poems. Say you want to write an awesome sestina like Patricia Smith or David Trinidad, or Sandra Beasley or Sir Philip Sidney. So you read their sestinas silently, aloud, slowly by stanza, slowly with end words only, you listen to their YouTube readings (all except Sidney’s—he died in 1586). You listen in to their sound and shape, their imagery and tone. That’s food.
The choice is where to direct the food. If you direct it into the ever-hungry mouth of wanting, it will nourish dissatisfaction. If you direct it into the open mouth of practice, it will nourish your writing. You will actually write—lists of end words, a first six line stanza, a second; perhaps you’ll write all the way through to the final word of the envoi—a complete sestina! Writing feeds the poet.
Secondly, feed the poet. Feed the poet you are. Feed the poet you are daily. Feed the poet you are all day. Write, every day. But, you say, I work. I go to school. I have kids. I take care of my mother. I do the yard work. I do the cooking. Good. All of that can feed the poet if you open your senses, open your mind, pay attention and write. You dine on your senses and thoughts all day long, and, to feed the poet, you attend to the practice of poetry. Write. Every day.
Gary Snyder reports that as a young man he wrote while hiking or working by repeating a phrase in his mind until it grew into a line, and that line grew into another line, and the lines gathered into a poem. Then he would write it down. Vincent Toro revises as he memorizes poems to perform. Lucille Clifton once told Afaa M. Weaver that her little kids would be in the kitchen, one rummaging in the refrigerator, one playing on the floor, the others doing this or that, and she’d be at the table writing. Sometimes seven poems a day, she told Afaa, but only one of them good. Ross White says that some days a single line is the longest poem he can muster. Emily Dickinson didn’t leave her room. Sharon Olds adapted this practice to her life as a teacher, wife and mother: she went back to bed. William Stafford got up at 5 AM to write before parenting and teaching, a practice made possible, he said, by lowering his standards. Adopting lower standards, I wrote a new poem or revision every day and, for five months, emailed it to 9 writers I didn’t know, who never gave feedback. My job was to deliver. Every day.
Do you have a problem finding time to write? Perhaps there’s a different way to frame that question. As Gwendolyn Brooks said to a young Patricia Smith, “Your problem should be finding time for anything else.”
Note: Patricia Smith. “Gwendolyn Brooks.” Poetry 200:1, 58-61.